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Jamie Thomason: Casting and Directing Disney Television

Jamie Thomason is one of the busiest people in the directing/casting industry, responsible for Walt Disney Television Animation's entire line-up. Read what he has to say on celebrities, demo reels, acting and more.

Jamie Thomason. Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company.

As Director of Casting at Walt Disney Television Animation, Jamie Thomason not only casts, but also performs the majority of the voice directing for Disney's animated televisions shows. He arguably directs more episodes (and actors) of television animation than any current director in the industry. His credits include virtually every series Walt Disney Television Animation has produced since 1991, including Disney's Hercules, noted as the largest single-season voice cast in the history of television animation with 166 voices. Animation World was lucky enough to get a few moments of this busy man's time... Heather Kenyon: How did you get this job? It seems like the job everyone would want. Jamie Thomason: My experience includes working in casting at Hanna-Barbara, working as a voice agent, and directing for theatre and some independent films. Disney had been freelancing the casting of its television animation, and the company was looking to start a department. I was brought aboard to create the Walt Disney Television Animation casting department. It was a golden opportunity for me in that I wanted to direct, and it was a real fast track to directing. Within a few months I was directing a top-rated series, and I haven't stopped directing since. I like directing in all mediums, but directing voices is great because it's a very free way to work and there's an immediate gratification for both the director and actor. There's no hot lights, no make-up or wardrobe -- you just walk in and start having fun. HK: How do you determine a person is correct for a part? JT: It's just like casting for anything else. There are a variety of factors that make one person better than another. In voice-over, specifically, the way a voice sounds is important, but it also has a lot to do with the person's acting, and their take on the character. Sometimes you'll have one thing in mind for a character, but an actor goes a completely different direction, maybe doing something that hadn't even occurred to you. If it's a great take on the character, then you have the flexibility to make that choice in casting. HK: What are the key aspects of a performance that you strive to capture? JT: Ultimately my choices are based more on acting than it is about the sound. The sound is important, but when I go into the booth, I'm much more concerned about capturing the emotion of the scene, whether it's heavy drama or wacky slapstick.

HK: What is your approach to celebrity casting? JT:

It's all casting, regardless of whether they're a celebrity or a voice actor. We brainstorm individuals we believe are right for the character, whether it's the way they act, or maybe in their style of comedy or drama. But first and foremost, we cast for the character. If we happen to be looking for a celebrity, it just narrows the field. HK: Does directing celebrities differ from directing voice-over only actors? JT: If the celebrity has never done animation before, it's certainly different. But actors are actors -- they usually rise to the occasion. You might be a great film actor, but you'll be directed differently if you shift to the stage or television or voice acting. The key difference is that voice acting is like radio theatre -- the camera isn't going to dolly in on your eyes. You've only got from your lips to your larynx to convey the soul of the character. There's other little technical things, like having to stay on microphone -- live-action performers are used to looking from side to side, acting out with their bodies -- but looking side to side in the sound booth only makes your voice sound differently to the microphone. Also in animation, the acting is often a little bolder or a little broader. The human voice is the only human aspect to an animated character -- everything else is 24 hand drawn and painted pictures per second of film. In everything else about animation, the creative process is focused on one frame at a time. So it's very important to use the voice to fully communicate the emotion, and sometimes that translates into a much bolder performance.

HK:

What are the biggest or most frequent mistakes you see in a voice-over performance? JT: The biggest mistake -- wearing noisy clothes! Hot tip -- don't starch your shirts, don't wear nylon windbreakers, leave the jangling jewelry at home and don't carry any change in your pocket. We had Joe Pantoliano in the studio for a Hercules episode, and his jacket and shirt were made of such noisy material that he ended up recording in his undershirt. HK: What is your advice for folks wanting to break into voiceovers? What should they do and what shouldn't they do? JT: They shouldn't do it unless they absolutely have to. It's an intensely competitive field, partly because it's extremely anonymous for the vast majority of work. The same actors do multiple voices for multiple shows for multiple companies. Because of that, there's a small, core group of A-list voice-over actors that work the majority of the gigs. Then there's a larger group that work a little, an even larger group that work even less, and then there's everyone else. To get into that center ring is extremely difficult. If you want to start down that long road, you should begin by taking acting classes, particularly those for voice-over and animation -- if, for nothing else, just to get used to the differences of this medium. You should not rush to get a demo tape together, although ultimately you're going to need one. And that demo tape has to be great. Once you've gone that far, you'll need an agent, and they'll be the ones that market your voice to casting directors. Like the headshot in live acting, the demo tape is your greatest marketing tool. And what you put on that tape is crucial -- it should be only what you do extremely well. Do not put on anything that you do okay. For every category of voice-over, there are hundreds of people that do an excellent job. So if you do an okay John Wayne impression, don't put it on -- there's thousands that do a great one. If there's anything tangible, like dialects or impressions or kids' voices, that's important to include on the tape. The wider variety of characters, the better. This tape has to make a huge impression -- personally, I'd rather hear two very solid minutes of tape than three minutes of variety that includes mediocre voices. HK: How do you do as much as you do? JT: I have a very efficient staff that does an amazing job of cramming a whole lot into every single day. And they really do schedule out every minute of my day -- right down to breaks and conference calls and meetings, all in between our recordings. So we work long hours, we don't sleep a lot, put in some week-ends and nights, and down a lot of cappuccino blasts along the way. Heather Kenyon is Editor of Animation World Magazine.

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